By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
DALLAS — Gregg Popovich said it all happened so fast he didn’t have time to fear the worst. Manu Ginobili said the players looked at each other, gritted their teeth, and got a little worried. Patty Mills, the Spurs’ hero Thursday night, flat-out called seeing Tim Duncan on the floor clutching his right knee, a full-on panic.
“I panicked. I felt like my heart skipped a beat,” said Mills, who poured in a game-high 26 points that included six 3-pointers as injured starter Tony Parker‘s body double in the San Antonio Spurs’ 109-100 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. “I wanted to run back and see if he was all right, but then I was trying to foul someone so play could stop.”
The silence that surely enveloped the entire city of San Antonio could be sensed 270 miles to the north in Dallas. And why not? Even Duncan, who hyperextended the knee only to be just fine moments later after a brief stop to the training room, deemed it “very, very scary.”
“I was trying to get my bearings after it happened,” Duncan said. “The pain wasn’t that bad, but I knew it felt kind of weird; it went at kind of a weird angle. I just wanted to make sure everything was fine.”
Was it ever. The ageless Duncan, two weeks removed from his 38th birthday, quickly returned and bludgeoned Dallas for 20 points and 15 rebounds in 39 minutes, 17 seconds — 51 seconds shy of his season high. Kawhi Leonard was brilliant with 16 points, 16 rebounds and five assists, and Mills and Danny Green combined for 11 of the Spurs’ 16 3-pointers as San Antonio kicked its one-time rival, and potential first-round playoff opponent, for a ninth consecutive time.
San Antonio (61-18) now virtually has the No. 1 seed locked up. One more win in the Spurs’ final three games or an Oklahoma City loss will do it.
“We want to end it as healthy as possible and we want to lock it up,” said Duncan, who described the regular season as dragging following last season’s heartbreak in the Finals. “We’ve come this far and we’ve worked this hard, we want to get it locked up, so another great step.”
Meanwhile for the Mavs (48-32), Thursday night continued a string of frustrating home losses. They went 4-4 on their recent franchise-long homestand, then followed it up with four straight road wins to seize the driver’s seat in the fight for the final two spots in the Western Conference with Phoenix and Memphis.
Now they’ve slipped back into eighth, behind Phoenix (47-31), while No. 9 Memphis stayed alive with Wednesday’s rousing home win over the Heat. The Mavs, Suns and Grizzlies all play each other starting Saturday night.
Thursday’s combo of the Mavs’ loss and Duncan’s massive minutes only increases the intrigue for Friday night when the rested Suns play at San Antonio before coming to Dallas for a Saturday night showdown.
Asked about playing against the Suns, Duncan said he’d go 45 minutes.
“At least 45,” he added, tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Popovich said he planned to enjoy the victory for a half-hour before delving into lineup possibilities against the Suns.
It would be highly surprising if Duncan suits up. Parker is also not expected to be back. Ginobili, who played Thursday despite a sore left calf, said he felt fine after the game and would wait to see what Popovich decides for Friday night. Whoever’s in or out shouldn’t enter the Suns’ minds. This is the Spurs. This is what they do.
Meanwhile, Memphis figures to stay in the hunt Friday with a home date against Philadelphia. The Grizzlies have won 12 in a row at the Grindhouse.
Dirk Nowitzki, who two nights ago celebrated moving into 10th place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, lamented another lost opportunity at home. He finished 8-for-14 from the floor for 19 points, but managed just two points on two shot attempts in the fourth quarter when Monta Ellis finally heated up after a ragged 5-for-16 shooting start through the first three quarters.
Nowitzki, a season-long League Pass subscriber, said he’ll be tuning in for Suns-Spurs.
“I’ll probably come back tomorrow night [to the arena] a little bit and shoot, get a little rhythm, but I’m definitely going to catch the second half,” Nowitzki said. “I’ll tune in, we’ll see what happens. San Antonio’s got No. 1 locked up as far as I know, so who knows what they’re going to do.”